In a recent conversation with an entrepreneurship professor here at HBS, we got into a discussion about how business school students often lack the operational and technical skills needed to be a successful founder.
He asked for my thoughts on the 20 operational skills I thought were most useful to a founder and I came up with the list below, in no particular order. (Note – this is specifically for tech startups)
- Statistics and analytical skills – you don’t need to be a data scientist, but knowing how to interpret which business-critical data, and ask the right questions about it, is essential.
- HTML / CSS – you don’t need to be a developer but you need to understand the basics of how to do things like embed an email form, update text, design an email, etc.
- Understand how databases work – if you understand the fact that the boxes you put your data in can impact functionality in the future, you can have more productive discussions about these potential challenges.
- Project management skills – can you break down a project into a number of small steps, prioritize them and organize the people working on them?
- How digital advertising platforms work (like AdWords, Facebook Ads, etc)– not just the functionality but the concepts behind CPM vs CPC, bidding strategies and reporting
- CRM systems – If your customer database is a Mailchimp list, you probably need to look into a CRM, both for leads and for existing customers.
- SEM – search engines are still a major traffic driver for many businesses. Have a good idea of how they work.
- Networking – and even more importantly, maintaining a network so you have people to call upon for hiring, fundraising and support.
- Financial literacy – in particular an understanding of how cash flows work
- Know how to read a term sheet – If you’re going to be fundraising you should probably have a good idea of what you’re signing before your sign it.
- Version control systems (i.e. git) – You may not be a command-line genius but you should know the basic lingo and understand why version control is so important for your developers and your product.
- Empathy for developers – you don’t *have* to be able to code, but you should have a deep and honest understanding of the problems engineers have to solve, what is challenging for them, their priorities, etc.
- Know where to go for help – if you haven’t heard of Stack Overflow, you’re probably not looking up enough answers for yourself. Beyond technical guides, there are industry-leading blogs on marketing, fundraising or growth hacking, forums and subreddits for entrepreneurs and pretty much endless resources on and offline.
- Eye for design/usability – at the very least you should have someone you trust in this department. It’s not worth having a product fail because the concept was great but no one knew how to use it. This also goes for user tests, focus groups and surveys – usability is key.
- Understand and use feedback channels – whether you’re using an online service, running a focus group or picking up the phone, you need to be able and comfortable getting and interpreting feedback.
- Hiring – recruiting, interviewing and managing new hires as well as experience working with many different types of people will make those first 10 hires more effective.
- Content marketing, and scalable ways to do it – Content marketing, including email, social media, blogs and custom landing pages, can be a critical but time consuming growth channel. Understanding marketing automation tools can save a lot of time and effort.
- How to set up and read analytics platforms – At a minimum, you should be Google Analytics-literate, but understanding other analytics options (such as Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, Flurry, etc) is useful if you feel you’re not getting the answers you need.
- Pitching / the perfect elevator pitch – you should be able to communicate what you are doing, who you are doing it for and why they care in 30 seconds and make it sound convincing. If it takes you over 2 minutes to explain the concept, you may be in trouble.
- How to give and receive feedback – while it’s easy to ask for feedback, it’s not always as easy to listen to it. Practice accepting (and delivering!) the more critical comments as well as the more positive ones.
In general, I think a founder could be summed up as a schizophrenic masochist – someone with a conflictingly broad range of skills who is constantly looking for ways they could fail with an unending belief that they will succeed.
There are of course any number of exceptions to the skills I’ve suggested – what would you add or remove from my list?